BANGKOK - Thailand's army-stacked parliament will vote in an impeachment hearing against ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Friday, testing a fragile calm between the rural poor and the royalist establishment backed by the Bangkok middle class.
A guilty verdict on the charge of dereliction of duty could see Yingluck, Thailand's first female prime minister, banned from politics for five years.
The charges against Yingluck, who was removed from office for abuse of power in May, concern her role in a loss-making rice-buying scheme that helped bring her a landslide election win in 2011.
The government of coup leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has urged Yingluck's supporters to stay out of the capital, Bangkok, this week, worried about a repeat of the street violence that has dogged the country in recent years.
Thailand is under martial law, and public gatherings are banned. Still, about 20 of Yingluck's supporters gathered outside parliament earlier this month despite government warnings to stay away. Some held red roses and tried to raise pictures of Yingluck until police told them to put them away.
'It won't please everyone'
Peerasak Porchit, vice president of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), said the impeachment vote would again polarize the country.
"No matter which way it goes, there will be those who agree and those who disagree. It won't please everyone,'' said Peerasak.
Weng Tojirakarn, a former member of Yingluck's government and a protest leader, said her supporters might hold "symbolic protests'' if she was banned from political office.
"A large demonstration will be difficult because martial law is in place, but there may still be symbolic protests,'' he said.
Yingluck's supporters say the charges against her are politically motivated and part of a broader campaign by the junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), to limit the influence of her powerful family.
Brother also removed as PM
If, on the other hand, she is found not guilty, there could be a backlash by middle- and upper-class Thais, who took to Bangkok's streets a year ago to protest against her family's political grip over the country. Her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist former prime minister, was removed in a 2006 putsch.
Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs affiliated with Chiang Mai University, said that regardless of the outcome, the vote would create dissension against the junta.
"Ultimately, no matter which way the NLA votes, it will create dissension against the NCPO by either pro- or anti-Thaksin elements of Thai society,'' he said.
The army staged a coup in May following prolonged protests by Bangkok's middle class aimed at ousting Yingluck, saying it needed to restore order after months of unrest.
The impeachment is the latest chapter in 10 years of turbulent politics that has pitted Yingluck and her brother against the royalist-military establishment, which sees Thaksin, a former telecommunications tycoon, as a threat.
Thaksin lives in self-exile to avoid a 2008 graft conviction but remains hugely influential.